This month marks the 1,684th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, a conference of Christian bishops from around the world who met to resolve a growing dispute within the church.
Held in Nicaea, which is in modern-day Turkey, the council was convoked by Roman Emperor Constantine I on May 20, 325 A.D and lasted 47 days, concluding July 25.
The main purpose was to determine the nature of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father.
Although Constantine invited 1,800 bishops, the actual number of participants is unknown. One bishop who attended reported that there were 250 present, another counted 318. Roman Pope Sylvester I did not attend the council but was represented by legates.
The Nicaea conference "was almost all about Christology and how do you understand the person of Jesus," said the Rev. Julian Davies, pastor of the University Church, a United Methodist church at the University of Toledo.
"There were as many opinions as there were people. Some groups believed Jesus was just a man. Some groups believed Jesus was just a man until his baptism, when God inserted a Christ-like soul into him," he said. "The Council of Nicaea was very much a pivotal event."
"Councils were generally convened in response to some pressing crisis facing the church," said Richard Gaillardetz, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo. "In the case of Nicaea, the crisis was Arianism. This movement was named after a man named Arius, a priest who held that Christ was the first born of creation, but nevertheless a creature like us. For Arius, God and God alone was 'unbegotten' (uncreated) and eternal. To hold that Jesus as the Son of God was also 'unbegotten' was to reject a Christian commitment to monotheism."
The Rev. Jim Bacik, pastor of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish, said Arius professed that there can only be one God, "and the nature of God is that you're unoriginated. You cannot come from anyone else. Only the Father is God in that way. Therefore, the Son is not the same as the Father."
Arianism had been gaining adherents rapidly in the fourth century and Constantine wanted to end the theological split and bring unity to the Chrisitian church.
There is no doubt the emperor's motives were not just theological accord, but political unity to the Roman empire as well, Father Bacik and Mr. Davies said.
The Rev. Paul Gassios, pastor of St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Orthodox Church in America, in Rossford, said the theological debate at Nicaea reflected the same question Jesus himself asked in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16.
"Jesus asks the disciples, 'Who do the people say that I am?'•" Father Paul said.
The disciples responded that some people say he is John the Baptist, some say he is Elijah, and others say he is Jeremiah or another prophet.
"But what about you? Who do you say I am?" Jesus asked them.
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," Peter responded.
Father Paul said "the identity of Jesus is an extremely critical question. There were many teachings that circulated pertaining to Christ at that time."
In 325 A.D., Mr. Gaillardetz pointed out, "there were no developed doctrinal creeds, no comprehensive catechisms, and disputes over what books were to be included in the canon of the Bible were still in play. Christianity was growing rapidly in those first few centuries, but it grew in many diverse forms with quite different and sometimes competing theological trajectories."
The bishops at the council voted to exile Arius and anyone who professed Arianism, helping to "sort out which trajectories were, in their view, in keeping with their apostolic heritage," Mr. Gaillardetz said.
One of the lasting achievements of the First Council of Nicaea was the drafting of the first sections of the Nicene Creed, which was expanded at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381 A.D.
A section of the Nicene Creed specifically addressed the relationship of Jesus to the Father: "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father. "
The popularity of Arianism remained strong, however, despite the council's condemnation.
Even Constantine, who called the council and presided over it but did not vote, leaned toward Arianism at the end of his life, Father Bacik said.
But under Constantine, a convert to Christianity whose rule ended persecution of the church, the faith grew rapidly. Within 50 years of the Council of Nicaea, about 34 million people had converted to Christianity.
- David Yonke